Category Archives: Education

#310: An Elegy for the Essay in English

I read his essay out loud
the way it appeared on the page.
In about five hundred words
the student used two paragraphs,
and, beyond a single period at the end
of the first paragraph, used no
commas, no semi-colons or colons,
no dashes, no quotation marks, and
no more periods, not even at the end
of the second and last paragraph.
Leaving the placeholder from the template
where it was (in place), he titled his essay,
“The Title of Your Essay” and proceeded
to write in response to a prompt in
which he was asked to discuss
three different perspectives on
bilingualism represented by the
three different writers studied
in our unit, a unit about, you guessed it,
bilingualism. I read his paper out loud
and I did it in all seriousness,
deliberately inhibiting any impulse
to laugh out loud, because I really
did want to see if I could somehow
understand what he was trying
to say, whether or not, despite breaking
or ignoring almost every convention,
he might still have known what he
was talking about. I concluded that
he did not, and in the process of
attempting to prove otherwise,
he had killed the essay in English,
killed it in a bad way, killed it in a way
that would question the wisdom
of ever assigning another one again.
Mostly because I began to despair of
ever being able to teach a certain
number of students anything ever
about writing well. They’re too far
behind, and the interventions needed
too radical and beyond anything
we could ever offer them in the way
of meaningful help. And yet. . .

And yet my teacher heart decided
that the boy had written 500 words,
more words than he had ever
written for me before, and there was,
at least, something to celebrate in that.

 

Here’s the reading of the work the student submitted.
 

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#303: The American English Teacher Strategizes for Kids Who Don’t Read

nonreaders

He assigns the pages
and when class convenes
he understands in short order
that only a few kids have bothered
to do the reading.
The age old dilemma of
the high school English teacher:
what can be done if kids won’t read,
not can’t, but won’t or don’t?

Reading everything in class,
either out loud or in silence
will get the reading part
of the job done, but it takes
forever, can be dull, leaves nothing
left over for discussion or
any kind of deeper analysis,
no time for paydirt, for fun.

There’s the ubiquitous
threat of a quiz or a test which
either lights a fire under their seats
or, more likely, just punishes most
everyone and rewards a few.
This English teacher is loath
to purposefully use assessment
as a “gotcha” move, punitive
and ineffectual. So then what?

Yesterday, one of his students made a
suggestion: We’ll do the reading during
one class, then we’ll talk about it
the next! What he was angling for,
essentially, is simply a world without
homework. And the American English teacher
finds himself, often, saying in response
to this proposal: Why the hell not?

Read less, read better.
Read better, like it more.
Like it more, read more.
Read more, do it willingly
as homework in later grades.
This seems like it could be
a formula for success, one that
in his 29th year of teaching,
he has suspected would work
all along, but only ever half-
heartedly employed as a practice.

Meanwhile, the American
English teacher assigns his
students an art project with
some directed text search
for the key developments
of chapters 4 and 5. Are they
able to do the work if they
haven’t read? Only if they
do the work now and work hard.
Are they at a serious advantage
if they actually did the reading
ahead of time? Certainly.
Is it possible that everyone
wins in this situation? Yes.
Is there anything wrong with that?
He doesn’t think so.
The students work diligently
throughout the period
and have good conversations.
But there’s still the nag
in the teacher’s heart that
somehow he’s handling them
with kid gloves. Imagine,
he thinks, handling kids with
kid gloves. O, the horror:
teaching within the tragic
gap between what is possible
and what is a reality.

 

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#294: How Woke?

18f

Substitute plans laid out in plain sight and handouts ready
that should keep my sophomores honest and hard at work,
I head off this morning to a professional workshop in a district
populated by mostly white kids and staffed by mostly white adults
to have brave conversations about race. Even while the graduation
rate for students of color in our district looks good, and we know
that we are in large part doing a credible job to close the gap,
we know our work is not yet done, that it’s only begun,
that even though my curriculum is less about dead white guys
than it’s ever been, at the freshmen and sophomore levels
including a Native American writer, two Latina writers, a Jewish
American, two Puerto Ricans and one Korean American essayist,
only two dead white women, English and American, and Shakespeare,
we are doing our level best to be inclusive, progressive, to present
a variety of voices and points of view, to offer the lens of great
literature through which to speak to students about equity, about
race, about racism, about oppression, about microagression,
about marginalization, about white guilt, white privilege, allies–
there is no escaping it. And frankly, even in the face of a student
asking me this fall, “is everything we read going to be about race,”
I would not want to go back. There’s no turning back. And I am
fine with that. It is essentially THE American issue, isn’t it?
And yet, I wonder about myself and my colleagues,
once we have checked our assumptions and checked our
multitudinous privileges, and done due diligence to create equal
opportunities for all our students no matter their race, no matter
their class, no matter their gender or gender identification, no
matter their sexual orientation, no matter their creed, how deep
must we go? Knowing we will make mistakes along the way and fail,
how perfect must we strive to be? How much more WOKE can
we get? There’s no end point. There’s no finish line. We keep at
it as long as we go on and it’s exhausting and exhilarating and
exciting and righteous–but heavy, heavy with the weight of
so much justice. As imperfect beings, riddled with our own
contradictions and weaknesses, are we up for the job?

We have to be. We see the alternative at the highest levels,
and we cannot stand for that.

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#284: The American English Teacher Tries Not to Be Afraid While Doing His Job

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Two nights ago I woke up at 3 a.m.
and could not go back to sleep.
It was not a nightmare that woke me.
Just some disturbance in the force
that momentarily stirred me from slumber.
Immediately upon opening my eyes, though,

a waking nightmare:

I was thinking about those kids in Florida,
and I was thinking about those kids in Newtown,
and I was thinking about those kids at Columbine,
and my heart raced, thinking of my own students
in my classroom in a similar situation, or my son
in his teacher’s classroom, in a similar situation,
and I could not sleep.

Even my morning’s meditation, while I worried
that my lack of sleep would find me
dozing off on my cushion, resulted in this
kind of thought-struggle: the focus on the breath,
in and out, in and out, fighting against the thoughts
of making sure both doors into my room were locked
and lights were out, of huddling with students
inside a darkened classroom, of listening
for the signs of safety or of imminent danger,
wondering if I could take the risk to open my door
to let other students in, wondering what I
would do, what I could do, if a shooter
somehow entered my classroom.
These kinds of thoughts would have been
inconceivable to me in my first years
as a teacher in a public school.
Now they are ever-present, hiding in
the shadows of every waking moment.

I walked into my schoolhouse yesterday, a place
that I love, a place I consider another home,
a place that houses over a thousand
human beings that I love, young people
and adults that I consider another family,
as I have done every day since Columbine,
and I try not to be afraid while doing my job.

When I’m there, in that building, doing the work,
it’s easy. I’m immersed. I’m present. These young
people bring me the gifts of their minds and their
personhood, their presences, and I do not feel alone
and I do not feel afraid. It’s when I’m not there
that the fear kicks in: in the middle of the night,
in meditation, at meals, on a walk, and in particular,
reading the internet news, which seems invented
for the sole purpose of cultivating fear.
My only complaint yesterday morning was that
I was exhausted from sleep deprivation,
but I was having fun with my students talking
about Hamlet, and then it began to snow. The district
decided, as a safety precaution, to close down the schoolhouse
two hours early. And as much as I wanted to see
my fourth period 10th graders after an extended absence,
I was happy that I could go home a little early to rest,
and heartened too by the news from Florida:
these kids have had enough of our shit and are fighting
the good fight for the future of our nation and for the
safety of our young people: one and the same fight.
I have more faith in them than I have ever had
in the Republican Party, in any Party, to send us on
the right path, away from harm, away from fear,
toward something like real freedom, a thing that
nobody else seems to recognize any more on either
side of the aisle. Our children are reminding us
about what this word means. They have to be
our heroes now.

They are rising to the occasion.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: February 15, 2018

Photo on 2-15-18 at 7.49 PM

Today I wrapped up three full days of sitting with my senior IB English students, listening to their oral commentaries on a poem by Seamus Heaney and holding discussions with them about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I sat with almost 25 students, just me and the kid, one at a time, for 20 full minutes a piece. Each time I do this activity, as exhausting as it can be and sometimes frustrating, I am struck nearly dumb with gratitude for the opportunity. It is rare that, as teachers, we have the luxury of time, not to mention the resources that make it possible to hire a substitute so classes can continue in our absence, to sit down with a single student and listen deeply to their learning. It is, likely, the most authentic kind of assessment I’ve ever administered, and one that honors student voices while simultaneously holding them to a rigorous standard. It is intense, intimate, and hopefully an inviting experience. Some students are nervous and do strange things. They talk super fast. Or they stammer a lot. Or certain things they know suddenly slip their minds: What was the name of that character, you know, the main one? Did this detail come before or after that other one? Why, despite the fact that I know this is a work of non-fiction, do I insist on calling it a novel over and over again? Or why did I call this thing a paragraph when I know it to be a stanza? Why did I just call Seamus Heaney Shameless Hainley? How do sentences work again? And then other students speak with an eloquence you’ve never been able to hear in the context of the classroom: That quiet student who likens Virginia Woolf’s speech to a chemistry experiment. A couple of students who are so excited about the material that they seem almost giddy talking about their favorite scenes and favorite ideas: who knew that Woolf’s description of the androgynous mind could have such a profound impact on an 18 year old woman’s consciousness? One student was so meticulous and thoughtful about each sentence she uttered, every one of her thoughts seemed weighty and perfectly formed. And this time through, without exception, every student spoke for 20 minutes. And I listened as deeply as I could and asked open and honest questions to the best of my ability. It was exhausting and glorious.

Two weekends earlier, at the close of one semester and at the opening of the next, I was in San Antonio, Texas for five days with Parker J. Palmer and The Center for Courage and Renewal, learning further about The Courage Way, on a path to becoming a facilitator of professional formation work. Much of that practice is also about deep listening, to self and to others, hearing and listening ourselves into speech, always respectful of silence as a guest and fellow traveler. This seems a little woo woo, doesn’t it. Well, it’s not for everybody, and I remember Parker talking about wanting it, perhaps, to sound more woo woo than it actually is–because anyone with a complete aversion to woo woo would probably not end up receptive to the work, incapable of listening deeply, untrustworthy of the inner teacher, suspicious of the silences in which our greatest wisdom often resides.

Part of my job over the course of this training program is to discover ways of making this kind of work manifest in my professional life and in my community. Over the last few days I felt it working already as I sat with my students, listening to them speak, allowing them to hear themselves, inviting silences from time to time, allowing the inner teacher in each young person to come out to play. The only drawback: it was primarily an academic exercise, and ultimately, it was my job as their teacher and as a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program, to evaluate their performance. Not really the optimum circumstances for true formation work. And always, in the back of my mind, and in light of yesterday’s horrific and all-too-familiar news of yet another mass shooting inside of a school, I knew that many of their hearts were breaking, as was mine. And yet we didn’t speak a word about that. We proceeded with the task at hand. We talked seriously about literature. It wouldn’t have been the time or place to check in with each of them about how they were doing with the news, what their thoughts were on the subject, how they were coping, how they wanted to change the world. I wish there could have been space for that. I wish there could be a space where some caring adult could sit down with every single kid and allow them to speak. We might learn something.

The study of English Language Arts lends itself better perhaps than any other discipline to this, but somehow, in every discipline, I think, we must learn to better balance the academic work we do in schools with the soul work we know is necessary for fostering in our students a move toward deeper integrity, agency and trust. Inner work needs to be on the syllabus and in the curriculum. I think our lives may very well depend upon it: our lives, the lives of our students and children, the life of our nation.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 9, 2017

I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?

All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today.  I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.

I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.

It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.

I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.

Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 5, 2017

Photo on 12-5-17 at 4.01 PM

And now for something completely different.

I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.

Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.

I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.

My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.

My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.

It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.

And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.

 

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